By William C. Singleton III
London Bridge eventually had to fall, and so does Homewood’s historic Bridges Home, it appears.
The Homewood Planning Commission on June 5 paved the way for the historic home, built in 1921, to be torn down to make way for newer houses.
Developer Pat O’ Sullivan, who owns the property, plans to subdivide six lots at 214 Edgewood Boulevard to accommodate five new houses, but not for at least another year, he told commissioners.
Residents interested in preserving the historic home and those who appreciate the lush garden that surrounds it sought to delay the vote, but to no avail.
Commissioners voting in favor of O’Sullivan’s request said that, despite their sympathy, O’Sullivan met all the rules and regulations required to move forward with his plans. Because the case was a subdivision of property, it doesn’t have to go before the City Council for approval.
The pink stucco home admirers say reminds them of an Italian villa originally belonged to Georges and Eleanor Bridges, artists who roamed through Europe in the ‘20s before settling down with their daughter, Mary Eleanor, who was called “London.”
During those days, the house played host to prominent American writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald alongside Birmingham’s socialites.
Georges was known for his sculptures, including statues of Brother Bryan and Thomas Jefferson that have become local landmarks. Eleanor was a prolific painter who painted the official portrait for the late-Gov. Lurleen Wallace and the portraits of two First Dogs, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier, Fala, and Gerald Ford’s golden retriever, Liberty.
She also designed the famed gar- dens at her home. The formal terraced gardens are surrounded by boxwoods, as are the walkways. The entire property is encompassed by an assortment of native flora – fir, wax leaf legumstrum, mahonia, hibiscus – all intertwined with wisteria to shield the house from prying eyes.
“You Google Eleanor Bridges in Birmingham and read about her,” said Martha Wustele Jones, president of the Homewood Historical Society. “She was a fascinating woman.”
The couple returned to Birmingham in 1928 intending to go back overseas. But when the Great Depression hit, the couple took in children who had been abandoned in the mining areas around Birmingham. They expanded their home and raised the children there.
In addition to their house and gardens, the Bridges had a stable for their horses on the property.
“In the 1920s, there were very few houses and the roads were dirt,” Jones said. “They had horses that would ride all over.”
In her ‘80s, Eleanor painted a life-size horse on a canvas in the home, Jones said.
After Eleanor’s death in 1987, Eric and Diana Hansen purchased the home in 1988 and have lived there ever since. However, in 2004, the Hansens sold the home to O’Sullivan because they needed money for a family medical crisis, Diana Hansen said at the commission meeting.
O’Sullivan has let the Hansens stay in the home, and they’ve been caretakers of the garden.
“We knew a time like this might come,” Diana Hansen said. “There’s not really anything we can do about it. … If we get $5 million, we could buy it back.” The Hansens did not want to comment further after the meeting.
More than 10 residents spoke in favor of preserving the home for history’s sake.
They also said that adding five more houses to the community would increase traffic on the streets, put a burden on the sewer system and create runoff problems as more asphalt replaces greenspace. Residents asked for a delay so they could speak with O’Sullivan about his plans and possibly offer solutions in lieu of removing the historic home.
“It’s the last historic estate in Homewood,” Jones said. “If this is torn down, it’s an estate that can never be replaced.”
Melanie Geer, who previously lived catty corner to the Bridges House and still lives in the neighborhood, praised the work the Hansens have done maintaining the garden. They’ve “been tending the botanical gardens there at the property for over 30 years,” she said. “The neighbors in the area are at a loss for words that we would be willing to consider tearing this history down in our neighborhood. We are all so shocked.”
O’Sullivan said the home desperately needs repair and would cost too much to restore.
“It would be very, very expensive to repair the house,” he said. “That was never our intention. It was always to have multiple properties there.” O’Sullivan said he has extended the Hansens’ lease until the end of January 2019.
“We’re not going to touch it until they move out,” he said. “If anybody wants to get with us between now and the end of January 2019, we’ll be happy to sit down and talk about any other issues or possibilities. If somebody wants to buy it from us, we would certainly entertain any kind of offer.”
O’Sullivan said his original plan was to build six houses on the property. He has since reduced the number to five. O’Sullivan said he hasn’t hired a firm to design plans for the houses.
“If someone comes up to buy a lot for a certain price, we would probably sell it to them,” he said. O’Sullivan said he hasn’t initiated a traffic study to determine how the extra houses would affect neighborhood traffic.
O’Sullivan said this project shouldn’t come as a shock to the Hansens or the neighborhood.
“When we bought from the Hansens, it was clear in their understanding, our understanding and everybody else’s that this was going to be developed at some point,” he said. O’Sullivan said he has compromised to accommodate the neighborhood by reducing the number of houses.
“With the way Homewood has grown and developed over the years, we felt six is too many.” Five homes would provide more room for bigger, nicer houses and would be “better for the neighborhood, so that’s why we’re sacrificing a lot to get five bigger lots,” O’Sullivan said.